Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Existentialism of A & A or How I learned to stop worrying and embrace the Zeitgeist

So for those of you who don’t know me, I am a huge nerd. Beyond the Star Trek uniform, the obsession with politics and the subscriptions to Discover, National Geographic and the Smithsonian magazine, I love board games.

Most of all I love my Axis and Allies Global 1940 board game. As my most recent acquisition for a price that will remain undisclosed, I have been playing it way too much. The real problem is finding nerds with enough time on their hands to play it with me (a game played to completion takes at least 8 hours).

Regardless, it is an awesome game that combines strategy, luck and history.

But there is more to my love of this game than simple dice rolling (thanks for the Christmas present sweetie) and historically accurate plastic models. Much more.

I assert that in the post-modern world, most people feel no connection to, as the Germans would say the “zeitgeist.” Zeitgeist meaning "spirit of the age." To put it simply, we lack meaning in our lives. In the post-ideological world, there are very few overarching ideas or identities that unite or divide people. I believe that this ennui leaves many of us looking for something to fight for and to believe in.

I think Axis and Allies provides an escape to a time in world history when ideologies, nations and peoples were literally clashing on the battlefield. ( I do not endorse violence as a means of proving national superiority or in anyway want to glorify the terrible atrocities that were committed during the Second World War.) Each nation was literally fighting for survival and almost everyone understood what was at stake. There was very little doubt about which side you were on and the “us versus them” mentality provided a very clear and simple dichotomy for people to understand. This simplicity allowed people to be single minded in their purpose and to avoid dealing with the real moral ambiguities of our world. The game provides a clear set of goals and the struggle to achieve them is monumental and exciting.

I like playing Axis and Allies because it lets me escape to a world without moral relativism and without the confusion of searching for true purpose and fulfillment in a world that wants you to ignore these fundamental questions. An examined and philosophical life is fraught with uncertainty and self doubt. And for whatever reason most people don’t bother asking themselves the hard questions. But for those of us who do, we know we need a little escape now and then not only for our mental health but in order to gain perspective on our choices.

Much has been said of the “greatest generation.” But one thing is clear, they lived through World War 2 and experienced all the emotions that came with it. Many of them, including my grandparents on my dad’s side lived through the great depression as well. These two events give them an astoundingly different perspective on the world than me and my 20 something cohorts.

My late grandpa Bob on my mom's side was in the Army in World War 2 and was a military antiques collector. Recently my grandmother let me examine and take from his collection. The crown jewel of his collection, in my opinion is his authentic 1937 Hitler Youth knife which now belongs to me. The monetary value of this item is very high, but the real value for me is its historical significance.

As a student of history, the rise of The Third Reich from the otherwise democratic Weimar Republic fascinates me and must serve as an example to us all. No matter what people say about “American Exceptionalism” the right combination of economic turmoil, domestic unrest, a charismatic personality and mass media could bring a similar philosophy to power in the United States if we are not vigilant.

Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.


  1. Wait, so I am still stuck on the skeptical pharmacist thing...

  2. As soon as I am back in WA which is much anticipated by everyone in MD I am down. I even have the second edition 1939.

  3. History has done a great job convincing us that ideologies we easy to discern in WWII, but I don't buy it. The idea that were unambiguous sides to be on is not true. Many in the US supported the Nazi regime and strongly were against intervention in Europe until Germany declared war after Pearl Harbor. It's not like those feelings just disappeared overnight even with a declaration of war. Also, at the beginning of the war, many American Communists were incredibly against war with Germany, and only became vehemently pro-US when Germany attacked the Soviet Union. Sure, they had an ideology, but it wasn't an American nationalistic one. All of that is to say nothing of the Japanese-Americans that were placed in our own concentration camps. I'm sure that they didn't see things quite as clearly in the "us vs. them" mentality.

    While we are asked not to think about our ideologies today, we are constantly asking ourselves to identify in some way: what groups we join on facebook, who we subscribe to on twitter, where we checked in on foursquare. We have identifiers all around us, but what do they mean? Nothing really, and that's where I come around to agreeing with you about the completely different outlook of our generation vs. the "greatest" generation.